AussieTheatre’s Guest reviewers Daniel Wilson and Damien Clift share their thoughts on Chess – The Musical
There are so many puns – “Chess has had a checkered past”, “The Queen always wins”, “All the squares don’t make you bored” – but the Production Company and director Gale Edwards have shown a new winning strategy.
Chess was written in the early 80s when the Cold War was a reality and the US was fighting the communist threat. Based around an international Chess championship (that’s broadcast to the world), it’s US versus USSR as the players show that there are humans behind politics and loves and allegiances are as complicated as any game.
The original London production in 1986 was fraught with technical difficulties but ultimately soared and ran until 1989, due to the cast and popularity of the score, which included pop singles like ‘One Night in Bangkok’. And not forgetting that the music is by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyrics by Tim Rice.
The New York production was less successful. There were rewrites and the originally sung musical became a hard-to-follow play with music. Chess opened in Australia in 1991 in a blaze of media hype. The cast included an amazing Jodie Gillies as Florence, David McLeod, Robbie Krupski, Maria Mercedes, John Wood and David Whitney. Tim Rice had supervised another rewrite of the show that took the Act One action from Italy and moved it all to one game in Act Two’s Bangkok. I (Daniel) saw it three times, but unfortunately, this production didn’t run as long as expected, regardless of the brilliant production and cast.
The Production Company have enlisted Edwards, with her reputation for creativity and individuality, to create a new interpretation.
As soon as you walk into the State Theatre you realise you are in for a real treat. The chess-board set (Shaun Gurton) is simple and slick and highlights the fun retro 80s costumes (Krystal Giddings) allowing the evocative lighting (Paul Jackson and Robert Cuddon) to focus the action.
The cast are impeccable, starting with the ensemble who performed with assured zest, and ’Merano’ and ‘The Merchandiser’s Song’ were crowd favourites.
Martin Crewes as Freddie Trumper, the American, delivers a strong vocal performance with ‘Pity The Child’ a real star turn. Alinta Chidzey, as the Russian wife Svetlana, appears briefly through Act Two but really packs a punch, especially with her solo ‘Someone Else’s Story’, which drew mighty cheers. Michael Falzon created an ominous presence as The Arbiter ( the bare-chested Chess referee) and his solo number brought the house down with his ability to engage an audience.
The standouts of the night were Simon Gleeson and Silvie Paladino. Gleeson was able to show his magnificent voice with a beautiful and impassioned delivery of ‘Anthem’. Paladino demonstrated why she is one Australia’s leading women of musical theatre and a master of vocal technique, evoking beautiful emotion with ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ and the famous duet (with Chidzey) ‘I Know Him So Well’, and belting-her-face-off with some of the recitative. One disappointment was not hearing Silvie sing the full version of ‘Nobody’s Side’, which Edwards has used to enlarge the role The Arbiter as narrator.
One of the brightest stars of the night is still music. Chess is a difficult score which fuses traditional musical theatre, Broadway-style, Euro rock and pop, and classical styles. The cast sing it well and show great nuance through the more classical pieces such as ‘Merano’ and ‘The Story Of Chess’, but fantastically navigate the rock terrain of ‘The US versus USSR’ and ‘One Night In Bangkok’. Much credit should be given to the amazing Musical Director David Piper and Orchestra Victoria who captured the style and essence of this score.
All in all, Chess is a production not to be missed and another reason to be proud of Australia’s musical theatre talent.